The Edge of the World takes a view of European history centred on the North Sea and the Baltic. Traditionally the Mediterranean is seen as the cradle of civilisation, but Michael Pye focuses on the contribution of these more northerly waters to the development of the modern world. This different focus is the USP of Pye’s book, and was what attracted me to it: I thought it would all be new to me.
There is a thematic approach to the topics: The Invention of Money, Fashion, and Writing the Law are the titles of three typical chapters and within each Pye ranges fairly widely both in a geographical and a historical sense, though there is also a chronological thread through the book – so The Invention of Money is the first chapter, whilst Science and Money, and Love and Capital both come later, and deal with more recent developments with respect to money and trade.
Pye is very well informed, and this was a book full of information, though some of the material about Bede, the Vikings, and the early history of the British Isles was quite familiar, making it slow going at times. Later there were more interesting sections for me: a chapter about the Hanseatic League for instance, which was completely new, and an analysis of the impact of the plague which was much fuller than the narrow English view most of us are familiar with. The chapter entitled Love and Capital presented an interesting analysis of the role of women in northern Europe, exploring the development of modern ideas of love, romance and marriage. This section emphasised the greater freedom and independence allowed to women in northern Europe when it came to choosing a partner, making a contract with them, as opposed to the south where a dowry was common, and the woman less independent. This chapter also covered more salacious themes, describing the stew houses on the south bank of the Thames. Pye is reliably good at choosing interesting examples of real people on which to build his arguments, and some here were quite shocking, others amusing.
Pye usually begins each chapter with a specific example and this can make the chapter openings a little odd, until he finally settles clearly on the theme. This approach does help to bring the whole story of northern Europe to life. The book is full of interesting details and extremely wide ranging. It doesn’t quite convince me that the northern seas are the equal of the Med in being the cradle of civilisation, but it does tell a mostly new and quite fascinating story of life around the north sea in the the dark and middle ages, coming to a halt round about the seventeenth century, with the birth of the modern world.